First Muhammad Ali, and now Gordie Howe. Whew. I’m going to need a Garfield stuffed animal to hug and sigh into for a little while.
I asked Dustin if I could tackle the Gordie Howe piece because I’m pretty sure I’m the only degenerate hockey player in this beautiful feminist hug party.
I started skating when I was three, shrouded neck-to-ankles in what now looks like an asbestos astronaut suit and double runners. My father would send me out onto the ice of our local rink and minutes later I would be faking an injury or lying on the ice, looking up at the humming fluorescent lights, trying to figure out a way to get off the goddamn ice.
I hurt my ankle. “Get back out there.” My father said.
My back hurts. “Get back out there.” My father said.
My skates are too tight. “Get back out there.” My father growled.
And so I did. Grumbling. Pissed, every time. I was little, so I never thought “I hate my dad,” as much as I thought, “this is unfair.” And so I suffered through it. I remember that it sucked and that it was hard. I was bitter. It was cold. Cold and uncomfortable. And also, piping hot. The unique balance of freezing cold and sweaty equatorial heat that only exists in hockey rinks.
Once I could skate, properly, they put a stick in my hands and dropped a cylinder of rubber onto the ice and said “now score.”
And a lifelong love affair began. Just like that.
I had, right from the start, this intangible thing they call ‘touch’. I could put the puck places where it seems like you shouldn’t be able to put it. I had a low center of gravity, so when other kids tried to check me, they often went head over teakettles into the boards while I skated away. I scored lots of game-winning goals. I won lots of trophies. I got recruited for all sorts of fancy teams and played and played and played. Ultimately, as I got older, and the competition got increasingly better, I was less and less of a superstar, and eventually I was surpassed by the many many players who were just plain better than me.
But if you asked me what my ultimate dream job would be, I’d be a professional hockey player. I write about football for Pajiba, and I enjoy playing other sports, but there’s nothing like hockey. You wouldn’t believe the exhilaration of just stepping onto the ice before you play. You take a couple of quick chop-steps to get up to speed and in a second you’re moving faster than you could ever run. It’s magic. It’s beauty.
And there’s no better place in the world to find out who you are, as a person, than in a hockey locker room. It’s sacred. Disgusting, and full of godawful reeking stink, but honest and hysterical and precious. It’s a place where boys become men in the best sense. (I can’t speak to the mood of girl’s hockey locker rooms because they wouldn’t let us within a mile of one - despite hormone-addled heroic efforts - but I imagine they’re equally great.)
And so, growing up in that way, with a love of the game, you become an NHL fan by osmosis. I was never the kind of kid who collected playing cards or bought jerseys, but all of us, every player, knew who the greatest hockey player of all time was: Gordie Howe. Mr. Hockey. We would shout his name when we played pickup. We would whisper his name in reverence when we cringed on the bench and witnessed a bone-jarring hit.
“Holy shit. That dude got Gordie Howe’d. Christ, somebody call a coroner.”
He was legendary for his toughness, something all hockey players cherish. In 1949, he was in the top 5 point scorers in the league, and then he went on to do that for twenty straight years. That’s just eye-blinkingly ridiculous. He won six Art Ross trophies as the league’s high scorer. He won six Hart Trophies as the NHL Most Valuable Player. He was an All-Star 21 times and won four Stanley Cups. He was a professional athlete who played in five different decades. Seriously: he played pro hockey into his fifties. And he finished with 1,071 goals. If you knew how hard it was to score one goal, that number is awe-inspiring.
I grew up during the Wayne Gretzky years, and to me ‘Wayno’ will always be the greatest player of all time. I’ve never seen his equal. Full stop. His nickname is ‘The Great One’ for a reason. But Wayno regarded Gordie Howe as the greatest of all time, and that says something. He was a monster on the ice. A gorilla from a different time who could put you in the hospital if he caught you with your head down, and just as easily thread a saucer pass to a streaking winger.
I know. I know, Pajibans. You don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Hockey is this weird religion of Canucks. I get it. It’s not suited to a television audience. You can’t see players’ faces. The puck is too small. In my experience, nobody flips through the channels and stops on a hockey game just to see what’s up. You have to have someone actually turn you onto it, or have a parent who straps metal to your feet as a kid and pushes you onto a frozen pond.
Ugh. I wish I could sit with you all and watch a game and explain every subtle detail. Every tiny thing you can’t possibly know and can’t possibly see. The small insults. The warring factions. The gentleman’s arrangements. Face-offs. Protecting your keeper. Break outs. Snowing someone. Butt ends. Top cheese. Ringing the bell. Lighting the lamp. The Breadbasket. The Fourth Line. High elbows. Captains. Controlling the slot. Chirping. Dump and chase. Cycling. Dekes. Grinders. Goons. Snipers. Pylons. The Point. The Biscuit. The High Slot. Going stink on a guy. Love Taps. Club rivalries. Canons. Natural goal scorers. Being shorthanded. Power plays. The Stanley Cup itself and why the Montreal Canadiens are a literal plague upon the earth and the worst thing ever to draw breath and how I hate them and their fans violently with ever fiber of my being and also love them dearly at the exact same time. It’s all just words to most of you, but to me it’s like another language. A better language. Like being born into a secret.
I hear some of you now:Why do they fight? I hate the fights! Because hockey employs social control unlike any other event. It’s the original Fight Club, but there’s always a damn good reason for it. Yes, the refs manage the rules of the game, but there’s some grey area, and when certain players exploit that, other players take it upon themselves to police the transgression. I know it can sound like vigilantism, but it’s one of my favorite things in sport. Because if you’re a player: you know. Believe me, you know what you did and now there’s a price to pay.
Gordie Howe knew that balance sheet and he was always in the red. Tough as the iced tundra from his old-school Saskatchewan rearing, he was a goddamn beautiful pariah on the ice, a guy who would whack you IN THE FACE with his stick as soon as he’d look at you. And off the ice? Mild mannered. Quick to laugh. Loved kids. Could he play now? No way. He’d be suspended after his first game. It was a different era. But as time marches on and both hockey and civilization get softer, it’s nice to look back on where we came from. Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, was like Attila’s Horde on the ice. Equal parts strategy and brute force. We have lost a giant today, and we will never again see his like on any sheet of ice the world over.
If I’ve given you even the slightest interest in hockey, you’re in luck. There’s at least one and at most two games left in the season before someone raises Lord Stanley’s Cup. Sunday at 8pm eastern. The Pittsburgh Penguins try to stick a fork in the San Jose Sharks in California, and the Sharks are fighting for their lives. The game should be absolutely amazing. Most elimination games are.
R.I.P. Mr. Hockey. That’s him in the center, with the iron jaw. You made the world a tougher place.
If you’ll excuse me, it’s stick time. Time for me to lace em up and get on the ice for Gordie.
One last time.